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How can you know how much to save for retirement when the goalposts keep moving? Here’s a guide.

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When it comes to preparing financially for retirement, Jessica Howard is wise beyond her years.

“I absolutely am planning,” said Howard, 27, a Los Angeles-based care manager who schedules medical appointments and home health care for older adults.”“I have a drive to save for retirement because…I see 12 hours a day what can happen when people don’t properly save vs. when they’re fiscally smart.”

If only all Americans had the drive and wherewithal to set themselves on a solid path toward retirement. But stuff happens. The COVID-19 pandemic, market volatility and the challenging economic environment (inflation, anyone?) have forced many U.S. households to save less and invest more conservatively.

Companies have moved away from old-school employer-funded pensions that once provided comfortable retirements for millions of Americans — at a high cost to the boss. Employers have phased out pensions in favor of “defined contribution” plans such as 401(k)s, which put the burden of saving on workers.

Goalposts keep moving

The retirement picture seems to be ever shifting. People live longer, Social Security’s future is murky and only about half of all employers sponsor traditional retirement plans. Meanwhile, rising costs for housing in many urban areas have put even ardent would-be savers behind the eight ball.

A quick online search reveals what might seem to be a bewildering array of retirement experts’ rules of thumb. Investment firms offer questionnaires, budgeting tools and calculators to help guide people younger and older who are looking toward retirement.

Merrill, Bank of America’s
BAC,
-1.04%

wealth-management business, said variables include your current age, how long you expect to live and the age at which you plan to retire or at which declining health might force you to retire. Other factors include how much you plan to spend in retirement and what sources of income you might have.

Are these goals realistic?

One common guideline is to save 10 to 12 times your pre-retirement salary by the time you stop working. Another is to save enough that you can withdraw 4% a year, add it to your Social Security benefit and have 80% to 90% of your pre-retirement pay. The median income now is about $62,000 for men and $52,000 for women, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

T. Rowe Price
TROW,
-1.97%
,
an investment firm based in Baltimore, provides these age-related targets to get and stay on track for retirement: By age 35, save one to one and a half times your income. By age 50, amass three to six times your pre-retirement gross income. By age 60, prepare to have 5.5 to 11 times your salary saved.

Years ago, Fidelity Investments, a big Boston-based firm, issued a simple recommendation — the 50/15/5 rule — to help the millions of Americans who had no clue about how to begin to save for retirement.

The idea was this: Aim to allocate no more than 50% of take-home pay to essential expenses (housing, food, health care, day care, insurance and the like), save 15% of pre-tax income for retirement savings (including employer contributions, if a worker is fortunate to receive a match), and keep 5% of take-home pay for short-term savings.

After analyzing hundreds of scenarios, the firm found that workers who stuck with that formula stood a good chance of remaining financially stable while employed and maintaining their lifestyle in retirement.

“Each person’s situation is different,” said Jason Jagatic, a certified financial planner who heads Fidelity’s global and workplace thought leadership. “One thing we strive for is to better engage more people in the savings conversation and encourage them to be responsible for their finances.”

Jagatic acknowledged that 50/15/5 is a starting point and won’t be the ideal approach for everyone.

“50/15/5 is an aspirational place to get started,” he said. “Where you are in the country, your stage of life, your personal preferences and needs — there will always be adjustments.”

See: Will Social Security exist for millennials and Gen Z?

Younger adults are saving more

In its most recent quarterly retirement analysis, released in May 2023, Fidelity reported that its clients’ account balances had risen for the second quarter in a row, thanks to improving market conditions and an increase in employers’ contributions.

Moreover, 401(k) savings rates improved, and members of Generation Z (those born in the late 1990s and early 2000s) continued to make impressive gains in retirement savings across 401(k)s and individual retirement accounts, or IRAs.

The balance in the average Fidelity IRA was $109,000 in the first quarter of 2023, a 5% increase from the previous quarter and pre-pandemic levels five years ago. The average 401(k) balance rose 4% to $108,200. Total 401(k) savings rates, including employer and employee contributions, improved to 14% (compared with 13.7% in the fourth quarter of 2022), just below Fidelity’s suggested rate.

Jessica Howard, a millennial, is on the right path. She stashes 6% of each paycheck into her company’s 401(k), and the company matches 3%. She also socks away 6% in a Roth IRA. Most of her savings are in Vanguard mutual funds. She aims to have $5 million saved by the time she retires at age 70, with an eye toward being able to afford around-the-clock home care (current cost: more than $1,000 a day) in a worst-case scenario.

Read: How do I start saving for retirement? Auto-enrollment in your 401(k) may be the key

Many are saving little

Her situation is in sharp contrast to a 2022 finding by Vanguard that the median retirement savings of people ages 45 to 54 was $61,530. Those 55 to 64 had a median balance of $89,716. Average balances were higher but still well below the sums recommended by financial advisors.

The Center for Retirement Research at Boston College offers this guidance: Have a nest egg that will every year generate enough interest and capital gains to replace 75% of your pre-retirement income.

“This amount is usually enough to maintain your pre-retirement standard of living, as certain expenses and taxes often lessen once someone retires,” said Geoffrey Sanzenbacher, an associate professor of economics at Boston College and a research fellow at the center.

The center maintains a National Retirement Risk Index that seeks to capture the share of working-age households that could fall short in retirement. Researchers compare households’ projected replacement rates (retirement income as a percentage of pre-retirement income) with target rates that would allow them to maintain their standard of living.

Start with Social Security

“A good way to think about whether you have enough is to figure out your likely Social Security monthly amount and then figure out how much you need from a 401(k),” Sanzenbacher said.

For example, a household with $80,000 in income might get $32,000 a year from Social Security. The household would then need $28,000 a year from a 401(k) to reach a total of $60,000, or 75% of the $80,000 in income. The saver would need about $700,000 in the 401(k) to generate $28,000 a year at a withdrawal rate of 4% a year.

See: ‘What if I live too long?’ Five things to know about taking Social Security at 62.

The share of the U.S. population at risk of not meeting the savings goal usually hovers around 50%, said Yimeng Yin, a research economist at the Center for Retirement Research. That has been a fairly consistent pattern in the center’s regular assessments of retirement readiness. The center is one entity sounding the alarm about a looming retirement crisis.

“We have seen a stable pattern of wealth-to-income ratio across age groups,” Yin said. “If the pattern assumes people will maintain their current saving behavior, we see that about 50% cannot make it. Other institutes may disagree with us.”

Also see: More baby boomers are becoming homeless: ‘It takes just one crisis’ to push someone onto the streets

Falling farther behind

The Federal Reserve’s report on the economic well-being of U.S. households in 2022 contained disheartening news: Overall financial well-being declined markedly from 2021. The percentage of adults doing at least OK financially in 2022 declined to 73%, down 5 percentage points from 2021.

The share of adults who said they were worse off financially than a year earlier rose to 35%, the highest level since the question was first asked in 2014. Also during 2022, progress toward retirement savings declined, as 31% of non-retirees considered their savings plan to be on track, down from 40% in 2021.

Secure 2.0, a new federal law, could help the situation, at least a little, by requiring some employers to automatically enroll workers in company retirement plans. The law also changes the “catch-up” rule, allowing older workers to stash more than in the past in their 401(k)s.

See: Secure 2.0 doesn’t do enough to help savers—here’s how to fix it

An optimist speaks up

Andrew G. Biggs, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is a sometimes lonely voice who contends that “we’re not in anything remotely like a retirement crisis.”

“Incomes are at a record high for working-class people,” Biggs said. “Poverty is at record lows among seniors. Gallup [the polling organization] asks seniors about this, and most say they have enough not only to survive but to live comfortably. The share of retirees who say they’re finding it hard to get by is, like, 5%.”

Biggs said U.S. retirees stack up well against those in other rich countries, such as Germany and France, where President Emmanuel Macron’s successful push to raise the retirement age to 64 from 62 led to fierce protests.

“U.S. seniors are way better off than they used to be and better off than seniors in other countries,” Biggs said. “When it comes to retirement security, America, Britain and Canada do well. France and Germany, not so much.”

Howard, the financially savvy care manager, has some advice for her peers.

“I think that the 20s are made for figuring yourself out — what you want and don’t want — and establishing your career path,” she said. “As long as you’re saving by your early 30s, you’ll get to where you want to get.”

Martha Groves was a staff member of the Los Angeles Times for 34 years, during which she was a business editor, business writer and metro reporter. A native Hoosier, she previously worked for the Philadelphia Inquirer and the late, lamented Chicago Daily News. Her freelance writing and editing business is Martha Groves Writing & More.

This article is reprinted by permission from NextAvenue.org, ©2023 Twin Cities Public Television, Inc. All rights reserved. It is an installment of the “Retirement for the Rest of Us” series, a Next Avenue initiative.

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